From Twisted Steel to Floating Utopia

A $20 bet is placed on black in the casino, while upstairs a father lays a gentleman's wager down with his son on whether or not he can make it to the top of the rock-climbing wall. Simultaneously, that son's mother eases on to a tabletop in preparation for a full-body deep-tissue massage. Afterwards, the family will congregate for dinner then catch a live show. While not many vacations give you all that in one place, a cruise can. Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, which launches this month

All the wonder that fills a cruise ship, though, comes not only at a steep price, but also through countless man-hours, miles of cable and wire, innumerable slabs of concrete and stacks upon stacks of hard, cold, thick steel—not quite the elements that cruisers think of when first stepping onto their ships. However, it's all you think of when touring an unfinished ship whose crude exterior is matched by its hollow insides.

I had the opportunity of walking through the yet-to-be-completed (it's slated to debut this December) Queen Victoria, Cunard Line's newest 90,000-ton ship being constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Marghera, Italy.

I was there in March, and still have trouble comprehending how the ship will be ready by the December deadline. It's tough to imagine when you are tripping over multicolored cables and bumping your head into dangling work lights.

Yet, Rai Caluori, Cunard's executive vice president of fleet operations, assured us all that she'd be sailing by December, though issuing one warning that preceded our walk through: "You'll be looking at a lot of steel." The state of construction on the deck of Cunard's Queen Victoria during HBTA's site visit

He wasn't kidding. Shuffling bow to stern and trying to produce an image of the dark-wood paneling and leather-upholstered Commodore Club or the cacophonic cadence emitting from the Brittania restaurant proved difficult. Colored renderings strategically placed throughout the ship gave us our cue.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was Caluori outlining Queen Victoria's Grand Lobby, which he described as the "nexus" of the ship. At the time, it was more clutter than center of attention. Scaffolding stood where the grand staircase would be and wires were not attached to crystal chandeliers yet. As hard as I tried to envision what I thought it would look like, I kept drawing blanks (although I did manage to imagine the exquisitely adorned wood-paneled stairwell in the movie Titanic).

Then it hit me. A ship costing more than $500 million is going to get done. These ships always do, but it does take time.

"The contractual delivery date is a key objective to the carefully orchestrated building plan and marketing and sales plan," says retired captain James Drager, vice president of corporate shipbuilding for Carnival Corp. "Cruise lines typically begin marketing a new ship about a year from its maiden voyage, so we must ensure a timely delivery."

The ships are built from the outside in. In Victoria's case, the ship's keel was laid on May 12, 2006, and then outfitted with 80 prefabricated steel blocks, complete with interior structure, cabling and ducts. If you can imagine, staterooms are constructed outside the ship and then raised via crane and individually placed within. It's like constructing a dollhouse, albeit on a much larger scale.

The job of design at Fincantieri, which handles many of Carnival Corp.'s ship orders, is charged to Maurizio Cergol, Fincantieri's chief ship designer. One of his duties is to ensure that all of the ships under his watch meet the specifications put forth by each individual cruise line. "All of our designs are tailored toward the cruise lines' needs," Cergol says. Specifications include the size of the ship, its speed and its color pattern. "We work hand in hand with the ship's interior designer," he says. "It starts with ideas, sketches and calculations."

Captain Drager takes it a step further. "There is always some change as the initial design develops and evolves," he says. "But the main concept remains as envisioned—a certain-sized ship for a certain number of passengers to be employed on a number of different voyages."

Once the schematics are set, they are put into motion by droves of workers, upwards of 2,500 per ship. Cergol says that equates to roughly two million man-hours. At a customary working pace, a ship takes more than two years, maybe three, to build.

Cergol breaks it down into eight-month increments: prepping, outfitting and, finally, assembly. It's an arduous process for sure, but calculated the entire way through.

I am hopeful to again step aboard Queen Victoria the first chance I get to see what's been made of the vessel since the last time I laid eyes on it. If I assume correctly, passengers on the December 11 maiden voyage will be met with plush carpeting instead of hard concrete, a pool filled with water, not merely a rectangular void, and even indoor plumbing, all in just a few years of work.

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